Documentary

Summit ’18: Crime’s time in the mainstream spotlight

Though crime programming has been a mainstay of mainstream television for decades, the genre has continuously managed to shift and expand to remain a leading genre. At the “Crime Time: The Evolution ...
January 31, 2018

Though crime programming has been a mainstay of mainstream television for decades, the genre has continuously managed to shift and expand to remain a leading genre.

At the “Crime Time: The Evolution of a Genre” session on Tuesday (Jan. 30) at the Realscreen Summit in Washington, D.C., a group of industry executives in the true crime space set out to chart the evolution of the crime genre while attempting to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t for audiences.

Moderated by Glass Entertainment Group CEO Nancy Glass, the panel was led by top crime content producers and broadcasters including Dan Cesareo, founder and president of Big Fish Entertainment; Jane Latman, EVP of development and research at Investigation Discovery and American Heroes Channel & GM of Destination America; and Justin Wilkes, president of media and entertainment at RadicalMedia.

For Investigation Discovery, trial and error has been a big part of the channel’s evolution and success as a crime network. To have a steady stream of viewers returning to the channel, crime content has to be emotionally engaging, said ID’s Latman. In order to do that, audiences need to relate to the situation and the characters profiled.

“There are certain types of crimes that didn’t quire resonate with our audience. Gang stories and prison break stories — things like that,” she explained. “But it was the ‘this could happen to you’, these relatable stories that make you feel this close to thinking ‘Thank god that’s not me, but I understand. It connects to my life in some way.’”

ID’s strategy has worked. Ten years since its launch, the Discovery Communications-owned crime net continues to reign as the No. 1 network in total day length of tune in all of television for both P25-54 and W25-54 – a record it has maintained for five straight years. ID also maintains No. 1 in prime length of tune in all of ad-supported cable.

“Our hours do move at a clip,” Latman added. “When you tell a murder mystery from the time the cops found a body to the time they’ve made an arrest, it moves. But now we’re allowed to also do six-part arched series — two hour specials are doing well for us as well — where we can slowdown and get every detail and feel.”

As a company, RadicalMedia’s entry point into the crime genre was through working with award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger and his late partner Bruce Sinofsky for the better part of 18 years.

A relatively recent development in the genre noted RadicalMedia’s Wilkes is the resurgence of premium crime content and the ability to tell a film in multiple chapters. Filmmakers, he said, are using editing, cinematography and narrative to slow the pace down.

“We’re trying to really have each moment resonate to make the audience see this happening in real time and lean into their screens, curious as to what’s going to happen even knowing in some cases what the result was,” Wilkes stated.

Reinvention has worked markedly well for Cesareo and his Big Fish Entertainment. The New York-based studio took to the idea of taking an existing successful genre, but with a reinvented twist.

A Cops 2.0 of sorts, Big Fish’s ride-along policing series Live PD for A&E has managed to steadily ascend to the top of ratings charts since premiering Oct. 28, 2016.

The series, which is already nearing its 100th episode, kept its hold atop Saturday’s original cable shows, drawing a 0.8 rating among adults 18-49 – its highest to date in that demo – and a total audience of 2.095 million.

“Out of the gate, Live PD was not a hit, but it continually grew,” said Cesareo. “When you look at the cost proposition of Live PD, it was incredibly expensive to get off the ground. I don’t know if another network would have had the stomach to stay in,” he added. “That was A&E believing in the concept and giving us the space to continually refine and grow it.”

Asked whether makers in the crime space might have any concerns about being cannibalized by an overabundance of projects, ID’s Latman laid any fears to rest.

“The kinds of projects that producers are pitching now have been elevated, so I think there’s room. Some people will dip in and out, but it’s creating better projects,” she concluded.

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.

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